Synopsis: In her debut novel, award-winning poet Brynne Rebele-Henry re-imagines the Orpheus myth as a love story between two teenage girls who are sent to conversion therapy after being caught together in an intimate moment.
Abandoned by a single mother she never knew, 16-year-old Raya—obsessed with ancient myths—lives with her grandmother in a small conservative Texas town. For years Raya has been forced to hide her feelings for her best friend and true love, Sarah. When the two are outed, they are sent to Friendly Saviors: a re-education camp meant to “fix” them and make them heterosexual. Upon arrival, Raya vows to assume the mythic role of Orpheus to escape Friendly Saviors, and to return to the world of the living with her love—only becoming more determined after she, Sarah, and Friendly Saviors’ other teen residents are subjected to abusive “treatments” by the staff.
In a haunting voice reminiscent of Sylvia Plath, with the contemporary lyricism of David Levithan, Brynne Rebele-Henry weaves a powerful inversion of the Orpheus myth informed by the real-world truths of conversion therapy. Orpheus Girl is a mythic story of dysfunctional families, trauma, first love, heartbreak, and ultimately, the fierce adolescent resilience that has the power to triumph over darkness and ignorance. (Goodreads)
Publication Date: October 8th, 2019
Genres: YA Contemporary, Retellings
Conversion Therapy, homophobia, transphobia, torture, electric shock therapy, characters outed against will, abandonement, emotional abuse, mention of suicide attempt, sexual scenes, body dysmorphia, self harm
Orpheus Girls was an anticipated book for me. It was described as a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and it made me excited for it. But unfortunately it did not work for me. It gets harsh and dark so I would really suggest to read all the trigger warnings.
The two main characters are Raya and Sarah who are both best friends who fall in love. They live in a conservative society and hence they hide themselves and their relationship until they’re caught. Raya’s character is not very well explained- in the first half she keeps to herself and is always scared and quite and in the second half she becomes a fierce person who talks back to authorities. This transition just happens and makes it very confusing as to why it happened or whether she was always like that. She apparently loves Greek mythology but only uses it make situational metaphors when she refers to herself as Orpheus.
Sarah’s character is very underdeveloped. We do not know her as anything other than how Raya describes her. She has no defining moment or characteristics. Raya’s grandmother is pretty bland. Another character who is very weird is Char. She oscillates between the torturer and the savior but she drives the plot forward by her random decisions. Her backstory is explained in a rush by the end but even then it doesn’t explain a lot of her actions. The other characters are the teens in the conversion therapy who are purely just used to show the harsh practices of the conversion therapy.
Even though this book was described as a retelling of Orpheus, there was not much resemblance. I do not know much about the retelling to be honest so I was expecting some way that even those who do not know would understand it. But other than a few metaphors and Raya calling herself Orpheus (again and again) there’s nothing which could classify this as a retelling. The book is divided into sections with titles which were related to aspects of myth I guess but it did not do much to explain the story. There were a whole bunch of characters who were just used to show the torture in the conversion therapy. Personally, I was not comfortable reading queer people getting tortured for almsot 10%-20% of the book. The descriptions get pretty graphic and there’s an electric shock treatment also done. There’s a suicide which I felt only served as a point to take the plot forward. I do not know much to comment on the correctness of this depictions so I will not talk about it. But using queer pain to take the story forward did not sit right with me. I do know that in a lot of places this is a sad reality and the book shows these horrors too.
The only thing I liked about this book was the writing. It was beautifully written and that also makes me wonder because this book had so much potential. The writing though really great was not enough to make me like the book. The writing does not translate well for the plot which remains weak in a lot of places. As a result, it seems like a story filled with metaphors rather than a proper story. The author is also a poet and I think that is why we see many metaphors and imagery which work well in poetry but do not always work in prose.
Overall, I really wanted to like this book but there are all these things which did not work for me. The one dimensional characters and weak plot were my main reasons. Personally, I will not really recommend this book unless you want to read a harsh, intense book about queers and the horrors they go through. If you do plan on reading this book, please do refer to the trigger warnings as there are quite a few of them.
I was provided with an eARC via Edelweiss and I thank the publisher and author. All views expressed are my own.
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